Science with a capital “S” | John wilson
Tthe end of the year is traditionally a moment of retrospection but also of foresight. December 31st should be a holiday in its own right, not just a preface to the New Year, but rather equal status. Now is the perfect time to consider Martin Rees’ book On the future: perspectives for humanity, first published in 2018 and now republished with a new preface by the author. Talking about the “future” quite naturally comes down to talking about the “past”.
I don’t mean to disrespect the editor of In the future, Princeton University Press (whose imprint I revere), nor to the eminent astronomer Martin Rees (whose general public books I have read regularly with profit over the years; “Astronomer Royal” is his title, and he is co-founder of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk) when I observe that this book would be much more interesting if it were a novel, identical to the text of Rees but composed with a diabolical and impassive ingenuity by a writer seeking to illuminate the claims of a familiar kind pontificate draped in the mantle of Science with a capital “S”. (When I learned of the existence of the âCenter for the Study of Existential Risk,â I immediately began to think about what contemporary satirist might be ideal for building an irresistible work of fiction on this trope.)
My own preference, when I think about the future, is to emphasize how it is likely to differ from our expectations, while recognizing that some outcomes are more likely than others. As I have reported on other occasions, I grew up in an environment (“evangelical”, this might be termed in retrospect) in which my fellow churchmen (mainly Baptists) spoke earnestly about the prophetic significance of the Church. founding of the State of Israel and more generally on the proximity of the âEnd of Timesâ. It was in the early 1950s in Southern California. As the decade wore on, I began to notice – although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time – that this speech seemed completely out of touch with most people’s day-to-day decisions and concerns. that we knew. And when I started reading a lot of science fiction, from about the age of ten, I gradually realized the possibility that we (i.e. humanity) could be a lot more earlier in our history than I had been encouraged to assume. I want to underline the word âpossibilityâ. As a Christian, I hold fast to the promise of Acts 3:21 (my favorite verse) that we can expect âthe restoration of all thingsâ while emphasizing the foolishness of dogmatism regarding the timing of that consummation and the form it will take. take, questions that are clearly beyond our comprehension.
How far does my sense of “the madness of dogmatism” extend? When Martin Rees observes that “organic creatures need a planetary surface environment, but if posthumans transition to fully inorganic intelligences, they will not need an atmosphere,” or when he writes to on the next page that “by any definition of ‘thinking’ The amount and intensity of thought produced by organic human-like brains will be completely overwhelmed by AI cerebrations,” is my reluctance to approve of a sign that I am still in the grip of fundamentalist dogmatism? I do not think so. And when I find Rees sweetly stating that “science, used optimally, could provide a bright future for the nine or ten billion people who will inhabit Earth in 2050”, or that “our civilization is shaped by innovations that flow from it. scientific advances and the consequent deepening of the understanding of nature â, reminds me of the University of Lagoda in Gulliver’s travels.
Of course, Rees himself frequently recognizes that the findings of “science” can be misused. But then he proceeds, unperturbed, to banalities such as one might find in a dumb magazine article: “The erosion of routine work and permanent jobs will spur lifelong learning.” Â»Satirists, start your engines. I also liked this one: âOur knowledge of space and time is incomplete. And many readers of First things will appreciate the conclusion to the section titled “What About God?” “, In which Rees advises his atheist colleagues to downplay attacks on” mainstream religion “; the wise atheist “must be aware of ‘religious’ people who are clearly neither unintelligent nor naive” but who could easily be pushed by frank criticism to adopt “fundamentalism and fanaticism”, a kind of nicodemism backwards .
Whether read straight or, as I recommend, as brilliant fiction, In the future will seduce you at the start of 2022, the “future” mysteriously becoming “the present” then “the past”.
John Wilson is a contributing editor to The Englewood Review of Books and editor-in-chief at The Marginalia review of books.
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